A woman’s life is about to become a virtual hell, thanks to the legal maneuverings of NBA star Derrick Rose.
She can count on it because the public still reacts with scorn toward women who accuse famous athletes, Hollywood stars and politicians of sexual assault.
Rose won the legal right to use the woman’s name in a civil trial in which he is accused of rape, scheduled to begin Oct. 4. The pseudonym Jane Doe will cease to shield her. The 30-year-old college student will be identified in proceedings, which opens her to levels of scrutiny and fury that Rose will not face. That fact alone takes a moment to digest.
The woman has accused Rose of raping her in 2013 along with two buddies after she passed out. Rose and the woman had been in a consensual, non-exclusive sexual relationship for nearly two years. But, she alleges, that changed in August 2013 after she had left the New York Knick’s rental house in Los Angeles drunk and possibly drugged.
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Her name exposed, the woman will soon be easy prey for any slug with an Internet connection. She will be called a slut and a greedy whore for seeking monetary compensation. She will probably receive death threats. The woman’s parents are immigrants from Mexico, so she'll also be treated to assumptions about her family’s immigration status and all sorts of other ethnic hatred.
Rose’s legal strategy appears to be to leverage this reality to get her to settle her $21.5 million civil suit.
This is how we shame women who allege sexual assault. It often works because the public will be more than willing participants, consuming the details like gossip and rendering spot judgments about the victim.
That being said, there is also a forceful argument that shielding the identities of sexual assault victims mutes the public response to such crimes. That argument was made most forcefully in 1989 by Geneva Overholser, the brave editor of the Des Moines Register, published a column arguing that anonymity harms rape victims and mutes public outrage at the crime.
She wasn’t wrong, but she was writing before the advent of viral social media.
Her arguments continue to be persuasive. She wondered in 2003 whether the media’s hesitancy to name names – indeed it is an institutionalized rule – has “prolonged the stigma and fed the underreporting.”
The myths about rape continue partly because truths about the crime are shielded as well. And when its victims are nameless and faceless, that leaves a vacuum for assumptions.
In a less sexist world, a woman could make an allegation and expect the known facts either to prove or disprove the contention. What the woman wore, how much she drank that evening, if she had previously agreed to sex with that man or any other, would be of no consequence. Sexual assault would not be among the most underreported crimes if these notions ceased to exist.
Only what happened would matter. Was there consent or not? But that’s not the world that we live in, despite the strides we have made.
It should be noted that the judge has put Rose and his legal team on notice for shaming.
“Defendant Rose appears to suggest that women who publicly portray themselves as ‘sexual' are less likely to experience embarrassment, humiliation and harassment associated with gang rape,” the judge wrote in an earlier order.
But in the decision to allow the plaintiff to be named, other factors also had to be weighed: the public’s interest in the case, and the possibility that a pseudonym at a civil trial would be perceived by the jury as a comment on the harm caused by the alleged actions of Rose.
The judge can only control so much: the actions of defendant and plaintiff, jurors and those who attend the proceedings. What the public does to the woman, particularly on social media, is where the threat lies.
This is the sad reality behind Overholser’s long-held opinion that society does more harm than good by shielding the identities of rape victims. Nearly 30 years later, we’re still struggling with the notion.
For all of the ethical, legal and sensitivity questions raised, the narratives of sexual assault – be they criminal charges or lawsuits or journalistic reporting – still divide the public in unhelpful ways. Some people are so uneasy with the details that they prefer the muting of anonymous victims. Others take to social media and eagerly attack the victim further.
And that leaves victims wondering if they’re better off not coming forward to seek justice.
Reach Mary Sanchez at firstname.lastname@example.org.